After four months of winnowing, the greatest single-elimination contest is sports is set to begin. From 363 D1 basketball programs, 68 have been chosen to spend three weekends playing for the sport’s national title. Each of the four regions will battle to send one representative to the Final Four. Joel did the East, Brad did the South and Bryan took the Midwest. On to the West region.
This region is top loaded with names you would expect to see in March. Top seeding goes to Kansas with Mick Cornin’s UCLA taking the second seed. Just behind them is Gonzaga who didn’t roll their entire schedule this year, but still boast the best offense in the nation. The last protected seed goes to the Huskies of UConn who came out of the gates hot, stumbled through January, and found their footing to close the season. Beyond the top teams, there is the usual collection of plucky mid-majors, low-majors who are just happy to be there, and teams who genuinely have a shot at springing a big upset.
Kansas returns a couple notable pieces from a roster that won a championship last year, and are the favorite to make it out of this region. Jalen Wilson has been the guy for the Jayhawks this season. Wilson is undersized to play as a big, but uses his athleticism and versatility well on defense, and showcases a deep bag on offense. Dajaun Harris and Kevin McCullar are two of the best defenders in the country, and freshman Gradey Dick can light it up from anywhere on the court. The Jayhawks offense is not as elite as a season ago, but they share the ball well and are relentless at forcing the ball inside. Their defense ranks 7th in the country and holds teams to below average shooting while also forcing a decent amount of turnovers. The Jayhawks came out of a loaded Big 12 and have not lost to a bad team all year. Nothing a team throws at them should shake them too much, and Jalen Wilson will be the best player on the floor against nearly anyone they play.
Who Springs the Big Upset?
Look for Nevada to give TCU trouble in the opening round. TCU opened the season hot, but has been less than stellar as of late. Their main issue is their poor shooting from three (30.6% on the year) but they crash the boards aggressively, and play well on the defensive end. Nevada seals off the defensive glass exceptionally well, and hardly ever turns the ball over. They are also 6th in the nation at FT% and get there constantly thanks to aggressive drives by Jaarod Lucas and Kenan Blackshear and 7 foot monster Will Baker. Nevada negates most of what TCU wants to do, and the Horned Frogs are not going to bomb their way into this one. The Wolf Pack could be springing the early upset here.
Sleeper pick for the second weekend
I’m a big fan of Mountain West basketball, and have a bad tendency of picking those teams to make runs that aren’t realistic. That being said, Boise State will beat UCLA in the second round. UCLA lost Jaylen Clark for the season, and their starting big man Adem Bona is dealing with injury issues. UCLA isn’t a great shooting team, but harvest second chances. Boise State crushes the defensive glass and takes good care of the ball. UCLA likes to force turnovers, but will be without Clark who is 5th in the nation in steal%, and possibly be missing Bona who leads the team in offensive rebounding. This is a heart over head pick, but I do think Boise State has a legit shot.
Easy team to cheer against: #3 Gonzaga
I’m bored of these guys, and Drew Timme, at this point. They play an attractive brand of basketball in a middling conference. They’re being painted as an underdog this season because they didn’t pull a top seed for the first time in forever, but they have the best offense in the country and one of the best players. I hope Bryce Drew can pull another huge upset, and Grand Canyon knocks these guys out.
Sweet Sixteen picks
#1 Kansas, #4 UConn, #3 Gonzaga, #10 Boise State
Regional Final matchup
#1 Kansas over #3 Gonzaga
I think Kansas is the best team in this region by a pretty wide margin. They seem to be getting overlooked by a lot of people, but they have been tested, have elite guard play and a go-to guy who can take games over.